It’s been heavy in our youth group this past month.
Kurt, a 15-year old, made one last desperate call just as he was about to pop 100 Advil.
Mary, 14, texted me saying, “I don’t know how to talk about how I feel so many thing all bottled up inside me and I think I am at the point of just bursting out . . . f*** it anymore.”
And 12-year old T.J. wrote a letter written in blood, wanting to end her life.
OUR IMMEDIATE RESPONSE
Here’s the bottom line. If you think a student could be suicidal, you must act now. By law, you have 24-hours to report it. But here’s the good news. (Really, there is good news? YES!) The average suicidal episode lasts around 30 days. So if you are able to stand by that student through this period of time, you will likely have helped save his or her life! That’s good news.
So often, we youth workers feel ill equipped to deal with the threat of suicide. If you’ve been around students very long, then you know that you never know what to expect. We have to be prepared for the worst -suicidal threats and attempts-as best as we can. Here is something that I have found proven to work.
PRACTICAL QUESTIONS YOU CAN ASK
Many trained professionals use the S.L.A.P.P.* acronym when assessing the severity of a potential suicide. I’ve used this every time I am suspicious of someone threatening his or her life. Use this as a way to assess the risk at hand and potentially save a life!
S – How SPECIFIC is the plan? “Yeah, my dad’s guns and ammo are in the cabinet and I’m doin’ it Friday night out by the ravine” is more urgent than “I dunno -there are lots of ways it could be done.”
L – How LETHAL is the method? A gun represents even greater urgency than a drug overdose. Although both are potentially lethal, there is a small window of opportunity to intervene with the latter.
A – How AVAILABLE is the method? “I’m jumpin’ off the bridge this Friday” is less urgent than “I’m holding the gun as we speak.” Both clearly are cause for action.
P – What is the PROXIMITY of help? “I’m in my room and my parents are downstairs watching TV” is more hopeful than “I’m at our summer cottage and there’s no one around for miles.”
P – Have you had PREVIOUS ATTEMPTS? “This is my fourth time trying to kill myself” is different than “this is my first time.” While both must be taken with extreme sincerity, it’s more likely the parent/guardian is aware if previous attempts were made.
*I’ve added the extra P for previous attempts because this is an extremely important question and helps with assessment.
Thankfully, Kurt, Mary, and T.J. are alive today due to their youth workers who stood by them, helped them find professional help, and gave them a sense of hope. Their journey continues. Let’s be sure to be in it with them for the long haul.
*names have been changed for confidentiality
- The Youth Worker’s Guide to Helping Teenagers in Crisis by Rich van Pelt and Jim Hancock
- Help! My Kids are Hurting by Marv Penner
- Secret Survivors by Jen Howver and Megan Hutchinson